An Edah Editorial
By Dr. Beth Samuels
Is Esther Our Cinderella Story?
By Dr. Beth Samuels
In many Jewish communities, the Purim story of Queen Esther
is spun as that of a Jewish Cinderella. An orphaned girl of lowly birth with
supreme charm and beauty is chosen over all the maidens in the kingdom to marry
into the royal family. Both Cinderella and Esther have wise parental figures,
overcome vile, stereotypical adversaries, and appear to live happily ever after
in royal bliss. But as a Jew, Esther did not live happily ever after.
There are many divergent details in the two stories, but one
salient difference that distinguishes our heroines is what each leaves behind
so that she may embrace her new life. Cinderella gladly and rightly forsakes
her childhood of suffering for "happily ever after." There is neither
need nor justification for ethical or cultural compromise. Esther, on the other
hand, is a more complex character in a more complex situation. Whereas Cinderella
redeems herself after personal suffering, Esther redeems others. Unlike Cinderella,
who abandons a past she is understandably eager to forget, Esther infiltrates
a foreign culture with the intention of preserving her own. Esther and her uncle,
Mordechai, use their status in the Persian government to influence the King
and Persian society. The fact that Esther and Mordechai straddled both Persian
and Jewish worlds provides a complicated but ultimately helpful example for
today's integrated Jew.
Esthers story is a paradigm for merging the religious
and secular, while it also demonstrates the potential pitfalls. Esther intermarries,
becoming absorbed in Persian royalty, and is unable to raise a Jewish family
of her own. According to Rabbinic interpretations, Esther and Achashverosh had
a son, King Darius, who is good to the Jews and allows them to rebuild their
Temple in Jerusalem, but in no way considers himself Jewish.
The Megilah subtly alludes to a similar fate that befalls Mordechai.
At the end of the narrative, Mordechai is promoted to a position second to only
that of the King, with great political power and responsibility. As a result,
he has less time for the Jewish courts and systems which he used to dominate.
The Megilah concludes with the statement, "[Mordechai] was loved bymost
of his brothers." Most, but not all. Many of the Jewish leaders felt abandoned
Yet, Esther and Mordechai had no choice but to stay in their
non-Jewish roles, for fear that the king would change his mind and put the Jews
back in danger. However, their sacrifices should not go unnoticed. Esther intermarried,
and Mordechai lost his Jewish leadership. Therefore, they did not continue the
prominent Jewish line from which they came.
Fortunately Esther and Mordechai do have Jewish children ---
the boys and girls who choose to dress up as them every Purim and who are inspired
by their courage and commitment to their people. Maybe they did not personally
live happily ever after, but their immortal story enabled the Jewish people
as a whole to live better and wiser by their examples.
Today, Jewish contributions to and knowledge of the outside
world, in the tradition of Esther and Mordechai, protect and enrich our Jewish
lives. Our accomplishments in politics and finance defend against anti-Semitism
or anti-Israel sentiments. Our comprehension of science and humanities enlighten
our understanding of God's universe and of the sanctified human spirit. At the
same time, our commitments to and convictions about our Jewish beliefs enable
us to improve the larger world spiritually. We can use our understanding of
our experience in Egypt to fight oppression around the globe.
This integration of our Jewish and secular American heritages
fosters a more deeply enriched existence. Inevitably, however, such integration
comes with a price, just as it did for Esther and Mordechai. Involvement in
the secular world brings benefits and costs. The benefits make isolation a non-starter,
but we should be aware of and reflective about the risks.
Esther is an inspiration, but she is also a tragic heroine
whose sacrifices and compromises remind us to evaluate whether our own compromises
are justified. She stayed married to wealth and power to protect her people.
Why do we marry wealth and power? When we run for political office or aim to
make money, do we do it to help those in need, or do we squash the less fortunate
to get ahead? When we study evolutionary biology to comprehend the world, do
we forget about the existence of God? When we fight for causes, do we neglect
our own families? When we excel, we will be called to sacrifice along the way.
Esther is not a happily ever after fairy tale. We must be mindful
of the sacrifices we make in order to succeed in the outside world and have
the courage, unlike Esther, to back away when the sacrifices become too great.
Beth Samuels received her doctorate in Mathematics from Yale
University and is Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematics at UC Berkeley.